Many Christians these days are trying to consume less, and they’re doing so for a variety of reasons. For some, in the wake of the economic downturn, thrift is a simple necessity. Others, inspired by books such as Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess strive for simplicity for the sake of the health of God’s creation and for the sake of our neighbors, both local and global, who must do without even the basic necessities of life. It’s no secret Americans spend — and waste — a lot.
But how do we begin to consume less? And once we become aware of the horrific conditions under which much of our stuff is made, how do we avoid being overwhelmed by all the injustice that may lie behind our new phone or pair of jeans? And even if we simplify by paring down our wants, what do we do when we actually need to buy something?
Here are some simple strategies to help you live lightly without being overwhelmed by it all.
Start by going through the stuff you already have.
Many of us squirrel away various items and then forget about them. I’ve opened cupboards to find unopened packages of socks and underwear, purchased on sale at some point and then forgotten. I have come across whole caches of toiletries from Costco I have no recollection of buying. So before heading out to the store, it’s a good idea to take inventory: Check your closets and pantries first, and see if what you thinkyou need is already there.
If you discover you have a tendency to buy things and forget about them, develop a system to help you remember. One simple system is to always put new items behind the old ones in your pantry, closets, and refrigerator. (This is what supermarkets and restaurants do to ensure maximum freshness: first in, first out.)
Before you buy new, ask around.
Obviously this can’t be done with everything, but I bet you’ll be surprised how many people have usable — and even beautiful — things lying around they don’t need and would like to get rid of. Recently I noticed a friend’s Facebook status in which she asked local friends if any of them had a blender they no longer wanted; hers had broken unexpectedly that morning. By the afternoon, someone had given her a “new to her” blender! Your church could start an informal board (or Facebook page) indicating items no longer needed and items people are seeking. It’s a great way to reduce consumption, spending, and to share among the body of Christ.
I have one such story that still surprises me because of how over-the-top generous it was — an undeniable showing of grace. For years I had wanted one of those beautiful heirloom cedar chests; the kind you can keep your woolens in for the summer to protect against moths. One day, a man in our church “randomly” mentioned his neighbor wanted to get rid of an old chest. I said I’d take it. It turned out to be the exact kind of chest I’d always wanted, and it was in fact brand new: the little keys were still in the envelope inside the lid.
Try sites such as Freecyle and check your local paper.
This can be hit-or-miss — and you should always meet in a neutral place and be very careful. When our second baby was born and our toddler was still, well, toddling, I wanted but could not afford a double stroller. I checked Freecycle in our area, and not only did I get a double stroller — for free! — it was brand-new and very high quality.
One of the nice things about Freecycle is that you can browse it for things you may be looking for, and you can also post items you might need in hopes people will respond and offer them to you. Which brings us to why you should always…
Keep a list.
I don’t just mean a shopping list, although those are very useful too. I mean a list of things you are likely to need within the next season or two. While it is not always possible to plan for contingencies such as your blender breaking without warning, it’s likely you’ll have some advance warning when, say, you’re about to have a new baby. And even major appliances such as washing machines and dryers sometimes give signs of their impending demise before they are actually completely broken.
So keep a running list on your smartphone or on a good old-fashioned index card in your wallet. This is an excellent thing to have with you when you go shopping, because if you have, for example, “boys winter coats, sizes 8 and 10” and you just happen to find them on deep discount, or at a thrift store, you’ll know you’re not making an impulse purchase but wisely planning ahead.
Make Friends with People at the Thrift Store
If you have a list, you will know what you need, when you need it. And if you frequent the same thrift stores time after time, you might be able to leave your list with them and they might even be willing to be on the lookout for a Cuisinart or a Kitchen Aid or whatever you happen to be looking for.
When you buy new…
As you can see, I believe one of the best ways to live lightly is to try to find, swap, or buy used whenever possible. However, there are always things we more or less must buy new. It’s worth looking at Consumer Reports, reading reviews carefully, and asking around before you buy anything new. That’s because it’s a false economy to spend money on the cheapest pair of shoes, when a quality pair will likely outlast the cheaper pair by far. Ditto with most appliances. If you have any expert friends, ask their opinion. Ask your car mechanic which cars have the fewest problems. Ask your tailor friend which sewing machine is the most reliable in the long term.
Consider taking a weekly Sabbath from buying anything, even a song on iTunes or a Kindle book, not to be legalistic, but just to remind yourself that, as Jesus taught, the body is more than clothes, life is more than food, and he alone is the one who sustains and provides for us.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press, March 2013) and a regular contributor to Christianity Today's her.meneutics blog. She has contributed to Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, Flourish, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She blogs at RachelMarieStone.com.